Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Disability and Difference

The Following is a Guest Post from Tom Reynolds, Associate Professor of Theology at Emmanuel College

I am caught up in matters of disability as a parent of a son on the autism spectrum.  As an advocate for his “inclusion” on a number of fronts, questions of justice and human rights loom large in my life.  Disability interrupts societal mechanisms of exchange based upon ideologies set up to privilege “normal” bodies.  A big part of my work, then, is to highlight and even intensify the interruption, not as something troubling but as something potentially transformative.  For disability does not simply represent a “body gone wrong,” a problem to be solved physically or remediated by curing.  Nor is disability a problem merely to be included, an anomaly that is somehow “other” and outside, which, according to the good graces of a community “needs” to brought “inside” and given access and power to be involved.  Both of these become ways temporality non-disabled people claim nobly to give something those others—“they”—don’t have, perpetuating an “us-them” or “inside-outside” dualism that retains a paternalistic ethos of exclusion.

It may be true that without accommodation an impairment (physiological difference, bodily condition) becomes a disability (social and environmental experience of restriction that results from limited access, from being considered to have an impairment).  However, outside preconceived programs and expectations fueled by dominant visions of what is “normal”, people with disabilities are persons (equal) with gifts (differences) to offer.  Insofar as our communities cultivate relationships of interdependence and respect and friendship between all participants, together we open access in ways far beyond what is often taken for “inclusion”.

In my view, “access” is a continually negotiated process between people with disabilities and non-disabled persons.  Accessibility aims to treats all as equal AND different.  That is, as equal without therefore being made over and assimilated into the image of what is taken by dominant visions as “normal”—which effectively erases difference—and as different without therefore being marginalized as “deviant” and “abnormal”—effectively denying equality.

In the end, disability is a gift that can teach and empower communities.  Disability is about difference, a feature of communities that fosters the diversity, the plurality of life.  This is important to stress first of all because such difference is often stigmatized and excluded by ableist ideologies.  Second, it is important because disability itself is not singular, but diverse.  The lives of people with disabilities are as varied and different as the lives of those without disabilities.  And all are in fact part of who "we" are.  The upshot is that full participation of people with disabilities is not an option for just communities, but rather a defining feature.

--Tom Reynolds

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Musings on cultural transformation and philosophy

Again building off our topic and discussion from last week, I want to pick up on the theme of philosophy and cultural transformation. I want to open with a quote from a philosopher writing on the theme of cultural transformation with which we have been concerned. She says, "Social justice cannot be achieved without a cultural transformation, the nature of which we can barely conceive."

Luce Irigaray (for that is the philosopher in question, writing in her book Je, tu, nous) hits on something important here: justice can't happen without cultural transformation, and the transformation required is so far-reaching that we can only "barely conceive" it. Whether or not one agrees with the specifics of what transformation Irigaray believes is needed, one can sense the appropriateness of her comment. Social justice is irrevocably linked to culture and cultural norms (among other things) and therefore in order to be able to "achieve" it where it does not exist or has gone awry, we must effect a cultural transformation.

And yet notions of social justice don't appear out of nowhere. Rather, they are born out of the matrix of culture and cultural norms, legal structures, and history as we tell it. So it seems to me that we have a circle of sorts here: ideas of what is "socially just" arise out of our context and are articulated by us in ways that we think fit with society's present needs. Of course there are competing understandings because the societal context is not unified. And the "present" doesn't last, so we are always, it seems, stuck playing catch-up. The ideas of social justice that came out of our cultural context don't fit what we need--transformation is called for.

Irigaray uses the phrase "we can barely conceive" the cultural change necessary, but "barely" is better than "can't". How do we do it, though? Philosophy as a field and a practice is only one contributing voice (albeit hopefully an important one) to notions of social justice, as we discussed last week. But social justice relies on other conceptions that philosophy and philosophers have spent a good deal of time and energy trying to address--ideas like justice, the good, and increasingly, truth. And so, thinking about such conceptions I was reminded of a second quote from philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty's preface to the Phenomenology of Perception: "philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing truth into being."

Now there's a conception--no pun intended! Bringing truth into being! Philosophy doesn't have a "corner" on truth, but it can and does offer several important perspectives on truth that help "bring it into being"--that is, help make it come alive as a defining and important concept in our lives and contexts and politics and actions. And if I had to make a wager as to what might spark the kind of "barely conceivable" cultural transformation for social justice Irigaray and others hope and work for, it would be a new and deeper understanding of truth and how truth matters, what impact truth has in our particular societal contexts today. Truth can seem like an abstract concept without much import, until one begins to notice a lack of it. Increasingly it seems, people are beginning to make the connection between untruth and injustice. Much of the deep political and social unrest that has swept the globe in the last year was set off by a desire to end social oppression or injustice in various forms, but again and again as the revolutions and protests and battles have ensued, the issue of truth becomes louder. Protesters in many different areas protesting many different things have claimed that in order to maintain unjust circumstances, a veil of lies is used by those with the power (whether through governmental or economic means) to do so. They are calling for the "ugly truth" to come out, but they are also calling for a new social truth to redefine the culture and cultural norms that allowed such a level of injustice to flourish in the first place.

That's also, incidentally, exactly why I find it very striking that Merleau-Ponty draws a connection between philosophy's ability to bring truth into being and art's ability to do so analogously. (I would love to write more on that, but it would be another post entirely.) On the perspective he offers, both philosophy and art are understood of as creative processes that bring something vital to society into being. Perhaps viewing philosophy as a creative process undertaken to continually bring concepts vital for cultural transformation into being is a good place to start when we look at the question, what can philosophy do to contribute to social justice?

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Philosophy and the question: what can I do?

One of the questions that was raised in the comments during the last post seemed to warrant a post of its own, though I will be extrapolating a bit. I spent quite some time formulating a comment in response to the exchange between Mad Professor and Bob Sweetman (only to have that carefully crafted response suddenly erased beyond recall by a computer malfunction...) but in writing it, I realized that there are some tensions at play in our posting here that are well worth addressing.

Part of my reflecting on this took place while I was away at a family event in Detroit, which area I am originally form. The case surrounding Trayvon Martin that we were discussing last week is, with good reason, a major topic of discussion in Detroit and the tension was palpable. I, like both the Mad Professor and Bob seem to be saying, "get" the response of anger and disgust.  It is certainly where I started when I began looking into this case, and those feelings still exist. But, particularly as I re-entered my old home grounds in Michigan, I also wondered, what can I do? What can I as a person do in response to this and to stop things like this from happening again? What can we as a community do? And then, reading Bob's comments, I asked myself, who am I when I ask 'what can I do'? and likewise, who is this we that I am speaking of?

Identity is a complex issue that could not possibly be sorted out in the space of a blog entry, but one large portion of who both "I" and "we" am/are is a philosopher, or a community of philosophers, theologians, other theorists and activists. That's largely (though not exclusively) who reads this blog. I, Allyson the individual, could go and join protests and carry signs, and write letters to the appropriate authorities on this issue as well as on other equally pressing ones here in Canada. But I am also a trained philosopher, with a vocation to act as one. So what do I do in that capacity?

This is one of the major questions that faces us in the community in which "we" exist, and I think (correct me if I'm wrong, Bob) it was part of what you were trying to get it in your comments on the previous post. "We" who are in this particular community are trained to think in terms of theory, to look for the "bigger questions" that lie behind or underneath whatever topic is at hand. That is, in a sense, part of our job. But we have to be able to do that in a way that matters to the matter at hand (whatever particular issue or set of issues it is that we are addressing.) Bob, you wrote if our conceptual analyses are merely reflective of what is and never transformative or at least potentially transformative, what good are we? That's a question worth asking. It seems quite clear to me that it is transformation that this situation with the Trayvon Martin case requires. And there are many other places and issues that also require transformation: societal transformation, political transformation, ideological transformation--even personal transformation. So when we are faced with issues that rightfully make us react with deep anger and disgust, how do we, in our capacity as academics or activists with a theoretical bent, begin to dig into the work of transformation necessary?

I have some ideas involving more interaction between academics and activists, and working in an interdisciplinary manner to get more input from many different parties who come from different perspectives. This would, however, have to be undertaken in the hope and belief that it will help ensure theory is grounded in experience arising out of practice and practice is grounded in reflection on theory, and that this double grounding is a continual cycle that impacts both how we theorize and what we do. But what are other's thoughts, speaking in the capacity of a trained academic or activist (or both?)